Futility of caretaker government – Democratic governance always takes a circuitry route owing to its essential consensual decision making that also takes time to arrive at. It now seems that the political elements are aiming at scrapping the frivolous caretaker government on the pretext that it is the lingering negative legacy of arbitrary rule in the country. This appears quite a justified move as before the inception of the caretaker government to conduct periodic national electoral exercise. The underlying assumption of this rather convoluted action was that the induction of caretaker setup was an essential requirement because any incumbent government cannot refrain from heavily influencing the results of national elections by utilising its incumbency. It was pointed out that by bringing in a caretaker setup it was ensured that a level-playing field to all political elements to contest the polls was provided. The practice of caretaker government was therefore justified as a mechanism to ensure transparency though it also reflected a deep mistrust of the democratic political activity portrayed by the forces of establishment. Quite obviously this assumption and bias was not to the liking of the political elements but they were left with no option but to concede to this arbitrary measure though they were not comfortable with it.
It must be borne in mind that the widely disputed elections of 1977 held under the direct supervision of ZA Bhutto’s government did not bring about any change in the status of an incumbent government holding elections though the perceived rigging of 1977 elections could have been an apt cause for bringing in the caretakers. It was actually the ever-anxious and besieged dictator Ziaul Haq who instituted the caretaker system in his vengeful bid to fix political elements for all times to come. His ramrod action was taken through a mockery of constitutional rationale whereby he got the constitution amended in 1985 through the Revival of Constitutional Order. Intriguingly, this arbitrary provision was neither challenged in the courts of law nor by the political elements that did remain in government post Ziaul Haq era. This acceptance of a gross act of arbitrariness was taken lying down by the relevant quarters reflecting the gradual weakening of spine of political elements who were mired into persecution by the coercive arm of the state. It is also opined that the main reason for political elements to accept this highly illogical measure was that they wanted to get out just before an election campaign expecting that they will try to shift part of the blame of their years in office on the caretakers. They were also afraid about the acceptance of election results by the parties losing them that would undermine their future prospects in office even before they assumed power.
The caretaker practice was mired in controversy right from its outset as it was selected by Ziaul Haq in 1988 after he abruptly dismissed the government of his handpicked PM Junejo. It was his fear that made him to select caretaker administration arbitrarily who reported to him directly without a caretaker PM thus defying the regulation he himself got inserted in the constitution but this was certainly not an unexpected trait of dictators that they did conveniently contradicting themselves. This was a severe breach of constitutional propriety but it was condoned by the political elements because they were on a weak wicket. The result was that the majority of the heads of caretaker administration was not rated as neutral or unbiased and their presence tilted the balance towards the political elements they have leanings towards. This lacuna was partly highlighted by political elements, particularly the leading ones but they fell short of asking for its removal but simply demanded caretakers to be neutral though realising that this assertion was neither here or there. They were also mindful of the advantages of both avoiding defending their performance and outcome of election. This overriding consideration is conspicuously reflected in the fact that both the 18th and 20th amendments to the constitution did not tackle this unwanted intrusion in the normal flow of governance though they extensively overhauled the constitutional scheme of caretaker governments.
The caretaker government system is now viewed with increased scepticism particularly after the caretaker government in Punjab and KP exceeded their 90-day tenure and they were found to be taking long-term policy decisions. The public confessions of political parties opposed to the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) that their nominated representatives were included in the KP caretaker government has further disputed the neutrality and efficacy of caretaker governments. It is widely conjectured that Ishaq Dar’s supposed nomination for the slot of the caretaker PM may be aimed at bringing to fore the much-emphasised point that it should be the responsibility of the functioning political personnel to head any caretaker government. This implies that the political elements have conveyed their intention of ultimately scrapping the caretaker rigmarole once a consensual decision is reached by them. This is certainly justified a stance as unelected people should not be allowed to oversee a crucial exercise such as national elections. Expecting a caretaker government to be neutral is utopian in context and this fact is now taken into serious consideration by the political elements. They have certainly taken a circuitry route but that is how democratic governance functions. The Weekender